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Notes from the Executive Director – August 2018

In August 2011, libraries on the Atlantic coast of the United States were thrashed by Hurricane Irene. Barely a year later, Hurricane Sandy struck. Both storms caused damage to library buildings, equipment, and collections. One New Jersey library was damaged by Irene and Sandy, and after being forced to rebuild for a second time, closed permanently. Librarians at the Health Science Library at New York University took what they thought were sensible precautions prior to Sandy making landfall. They moved computers from the floor to desks and covered the collections with plastic. In retrospect, says Jeff Williams, director of the library, such precautions seemed almost comically inadequate. The 14-foot storm surge, unlike anything seen before and completely unexpected, left the entire basement underwater for several days. Elsewhere at the medical center, thousands of animals used in research, mostly mice, drowned. Responding to criticism, university officials said that the building was constructed to code that was designed to survive a flood twenty percent worse than any in the previous 100 years. It wasn’t enough. What is going to happen to libraries and other cultural heritage institutions as we experience more effects of climate change, including higher temperatures and humidity, rising sea levels, and stronger storm surges?

In an April 2018 paper published in Climate Risk Management, the authors evaluated the risks to archives in the United States. Using location data from OCLC’s ArchiveGrid and expectations of climate change from government research, they determined that 17.7 percent of archives were vulnerable to damage from future storm surges plus sea level rise. Twenty-two percent would be affected by storm surge alone and 4.3 percent by sea level rise alone. Almost all archives they identified would be affected by rising temperatures and humidity. These estimates almost certainly underestimate the scope of threats to irreplaceable historic documents because the OCLC data only includes well-funded institutions with the infrastructure to report their data. Missing are local history collections in small institutions or local historical societies.  It’s a sobering assessment.

What are libraries to do? The study’s authors strongly recommend that archives prepare pre-disaster mitigation strategies as well as post-disaster plans. The pre-disaster strategies should account for local risks associated with likely climate change. Such local risks may include low elevation and proximity to low-relief coastlines or likely large temperature increases. The Smithsonian Institution’s 2016 Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan may provide a good model for libraries and other cultural heritage institutions as they consider their own local risks.

Obviously, many libraries are situated in areas that have a high risk of significant damage from climate change-related weather events. They can’t just be moved to safer areas. Taking steps now to prepare for the worst, while accounting for the uncertainty of long-term forecasts, is only prudent.

In addition to considering their vulnerability, libraries can assess their contribution to greenhouse gas release to the atmosphere and take steps to reduce their carbon footprint. For most buildings, HVAC and lighting use a large percentage of the fossil fuel that libraries consume. Consider making the move from fluorescent to LED bulbs. LED tubes come with a host of benefits compared to fluorescent tubes: they last longer, they contain no mercury, they do not require ballasts, and they are easier on your eyes. A winning combination.

With the large flat roofs that many libraries have, investigating solar energy may be a good step. Given the steep price decline in solar panels over the last few years and the ability to sell excess power back to the grid, the price per KW hour makes solar an attractive option. However, there is a significant upfront cost to purchase and deploy the panels and not every roof is right, especially if you have shade trees nearby. For some libraries, community solar may be another option. Most community solar projects allow you to take a long-term lease on as many panels as you need so that you get the benefit of clean energy without the upkeep that can come with an individual installation.

At MCLS, we plan to make our building less reliant on fossil fuel by replacing our existing fluorescent tubes with LEDs and investing in our local community solar project. We are also investigating adding two electric vehicle charging stations in our parking lot. These would be free to use for any visitors to our building.

If we’re going to limit the global temperature increase to a manageable amount, it’s going to take all of us doing our part to make it happen.

Next month, I’ll write about the ways that libraries are engaging with their communities and providing educational outreach about climate change.